The paper under review, medicine and religion in ancient Egypt is by Laura Zucconi, a history professor at Richard Stockton college of New Jersey. The analysis provided on ancients Egypt’s concept of medicine and religion, are derived from studies in the fields of medical anthropology, history of medicine and biblical studies. This article directs its attention into why Egyptian medicine was treated as distinct from Religion by scholars, even though medical practices integrated the religious beliefs of Maat (balance) and heka (power) where one could not function without the other.
Zucconi argues that medicine and religion as intertwined entities such that they coexist with one another.. Zucconi points to the following medical payri to further understand the concept of medicine and religion. She uses the eleven medical papyri: Kahun, Ramesseum, Edwin Smith, Ebers, Berlin, Hearst, London, Chester Beatty, Carlsberg, Brooklyn, and the London-Leiden as a comparison to show a relationship between medicine and religion. Of the ones given, the Edwin smith papyrus describes surgical diagnosis and treatments while the Ebers papyrus describes the physiology of the body.
They highlight the medical problems and how they were treated. Medicine is seen as scientific and empirical by the scholars, while religion is seen in terms of faith and should therefore not be subject to empirical method. She details that the scholars further separate the medical practice from the religious practices despite the similarities between the roles of the physician, priest and magician who all use incantations and call up to the gods like Seth and Horus, drawing up imagery from their stories.
Zucconi oes beyond the view of the scholars and proposes that the Egyptian doctor makes us of the real world of health as well as his divine patrons. Zuccooni defines the principles of maat, a harmony and divine order of the universe which incorporates balance, order and justice to explain natural and social phenomenon. Zucconi’s maat is not limited to political order of life but also to the physiology of the human body. Maat incorporates mtw vessels, as a canal which facilitates the movement of substances outside the body.
The balance of maat is compared to the rise and fall of the river Nile in Egypt, which works in an ordered manner to provide a favourable environment for crops. The next section provides an understanding of how illness was perceived as a disturbance in the order of maat by ancient Egyptians. Illnesses and traumas was believed to not be due to medical causes but as a result of a form of punishment from the gods, a reminder of ones social obligation or an attack by a malicious entity.
She makes use of the rebel of Joppa and the tale of the maid servants of king cheopas and the magicians to further illustrate how superstitions caused Injuries as a result of the disturbances in maat. Zucconi describes another concept in the religion of Egyptians called heka (use of magic). This section says that heka has three components: Speech, charged substances and physical rites. The author notes that speech, which is an cantation includes a description, command and a call for protection from the divine gods.
The description gives an account of what will happen in the treatment, the command consist of directions where the spell will work and lastly, the call for protection calls for the intercession of a divine precedent. The use of incantations causes people to be infused with heka thereby therapeutically healing them. Zucconi further explains the charged substances are present as amulets or stelae and are charged with heka as water was poured over them.
In the ritual component that is the use of acts and gestures, spells can give power to an action for example, in the papyri of Eber, when bandage was loosened, the incantation of a spell gave power to the healing process. The author in this section establishes the notion that there is no need to strictly brand the healers as priests (wab), magicians (sau) and physicians (snw) because in ancient Egypt, they all carry out similar treatments and are related to religious structures in Egypt. This means that the magicians, physicians and priests are all seen as parts of the healthcare regardless of their healing methods.
She uses the example from Edwin smith papyrus which states that” now if wab priests of Sekhmet or a swnw places his two hands… ” and from the Ebers Papyrus “If any swnw, any wab priest of Sekhmet, any sau give both his hands… ” to further establish the notion that the health practices of the three healers overlap and they can use heka to restore maat. I believe that the topic regarding religion and medicine here is arguable. Medicine and religion to the ancient Egyptians have a significance in the treatment of illnesses.
They held their gods in high esteem and when it was time for them to heal they believed in calling upon the gods to heal them from the supernatural cause of their illness. The doctors made use of the notion that the drugs they made would get rid of the demons who would be in battle with a divinity if they did not come out of the patient. The gods did not solve the problem, the medication did but instead the notion of the gods battling the illness for them gave them strength to believe that the gods were interceding on their behalf.
Secondly I believe that science and religion should be apart because even though, the religious practice of mummification led to advances in the knowledge of anatomy, it limited the ability of the scientist to learn more about the physiology regarding the human body. Religion does not play part of in the discovery of treatments and diagnosis of an illness because religion is just beliefs and faith while science make use of empirical evidence to solve problems.
In conclusion, Zucconi’s article was an interesting read offering an understanding about the religious beliefs the ancient Egyptians had about death. The article could have been better if the author provided her idea in an easy to understand and an organized manner. The article could have been stronger if Zucconi offered a comparison between reasons why she believes scholars see science and religions as two separate entities. This article is for scholars with an interest in furthering their knowledge about religion’s role in medicine.